The Timbers had just ousted their rivals, the Seattle Sounders, on penalty kicks in the second leg of an epic Western Conference semifinal. Portland had been the decided underdog entering the playoff series against a Seattle team who had won 14 of its last 16 matches. But with Savarese leading the way, the Timbers came together to play their best soccer at the right time.
After the game, Savarese was quick to give the players credit for the win. But the role he played in guiding the Timbers to that point could not be overlooked. Through late nights poring over game film and hundreds of demanding hours on the training pitch, Savarese had instilled his vision into the club in his first year at the helm, leading the Timbers deep into postseason in what could have been a transitional year for a team adjusting to a new coach.
“He’s got a good sense of what the players can give him, and he knows how to put them in at the right time for them to be successful,” said Gavin Wilkinson, Timbers general manager and president of soccer. “He’s getting the most out of the players on a regular basis.”
A TIRELESS COACH
During his first months in Portland, Savarese regularly stayed at his office at Providence Park until 8 or 9 p.m., presiding over animated discussions about tactics as he combed through video with his assistant coaches.
The stadium, usually bustling during the day, was dark and quiet during those nocturnal sessions. But inside Savarese’s office, the group of coaches were never in a rush to head home. They would regularly order takeout from a local restaurant and eat their dinners while meticulously analyzing every detail from the club’s previous game or breaking down film on an upcoming opponent.
While Savarese remained steadfast in some of his ideals — from the get-go he wanted his club to have a foundation as a hard-working unit that stayed compact and organized on defense — he also proved early on that he was willing to tweak his lineup and formation from game-to-game to put his group in the best position to beat each and every opponent. A tireless worker, Savarese would often arrive at the office Monday morning after a match Saturday having already scouted Portland’s next opponent and feeling excited to share his game plan with the club.
“I don’t know how to do things otherwise,” Savarese said. “For me, when I believe in something, I invest in it fully. The players have to see that you work, that you are a person that gives everything for them.”
It was Savarese’s family that first instilled that work ethic in him during his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. While the country was better known for exporting players to Major League Baseball than developing soccer stars, Savarese was raised by soccer-loving Italian parents that religiously watched Serie A games with him every Sunday. When he started to show a proclivity for the sport, his parents and grandparents were the first to remind him that hard work, not talent alone, was what would take him far.
In 1996, Savarese joined the New York MetroStars for the inaugural MLS season. As one of just four internationals on the roster, he felt a responsibility to perform. Despite playing alongside bigger-name stars, such as Roberto Donadoni, Savarese went on to score 44 goals in three years with New York. He still ranks fifth on the club’s all-time goal scoring list.
“I was proud to represent Venezuela at that stage in Major League Soccer,” Savarese said. “I took up one of four foreign player spots that each team had, and you expect foreigners to always perform. So, I knew that I had to always work harder than anybody else.”
After a long and successful playing career, Savarese went on to serve as the head of youth development for the New York Red Bulls and as an ESPN analyst before taking over as head coach of the the New York Cosmos and leading the club to three North American Soccer League championships in five years. By the time he joined the Timbers this season, he felt more than prepared to make the jump to the MLS level as a head coach.
A lifelong student of the game, Savarese still brought a willingness to learn with him to Portland as he strived to build his new club into the best version of itself over the course of the long season.
“It’s in his blood,” Wilkinson said. “He loves the game. He enjoys watching the sport, being around the sport. He enjoys interacting with the players. He brings that passion and energy to the field every day.”
WINNING OVER THE LOCKER ROOM
In December 2017, Wilkinson made more than a dozen phone calls to people that had worked with Savarese at every level. He talked to former bosses, colleagues and players. He even called old teammates from Savarese’s playing days. No one had bad word to say about the 47-year-old coach.
“I said to Gio, ‘I’m going out of my way to find somebody that dislikes you,'” Wilkinson said.
The character references proved to be the final step for the Timbers before they officially announced Savarese as their new head coach in mid-December. But Savarese would need to be more than charismatic to win over his new locker room.
Portland added eight players over the offseason and said goodbye to a longtime star in Darlington Nagbe, but the core of the roster remained the same as it was in 2017. The majority of the club’s key players were holdovers from the Caleb Porter era that had grown accustomed to a certain style and already had an expectation for where they belonged in the depth chart.
Early on, Savarese proved that he wasn’t going to play favorites, even with some outsized personalities on his roster. After two losses to open the season, the Venezuelan coach benched veteran Liam Ridgewell. Two months later, he went with the hot hand and started Samuel Armenteros in place of star forward Fanendo Adi. Throughout 2018, he continued to reward those that performed in training, starting 22 different players during the regular season.
“That is very important because everyone feels they can contribute,” Savarese said. “Some guys, maybe at some points, fell through and felt it was difficult to come back. But they continued to battle, and the reward came because when they got their opportunity, they were able to execute. We see the case of (Jeremy) Ebobisse, we see the case of (Dairon) Asprilla, we see so many different cases throughout the entire team.”
Even as he made difficult lineup decisions and tactical choices throughout the year, Savarese maintained the respect of his players. When the Timbers traded Adi to FC Cincinnati at the end of July, the Nigerian forward went out of his way to thank Savarese during his farewell press conference.
“I learned a lot from him, even though people from the outside don’t see it,” Adi said. “It’s been great. It’s been wonderful just working with him.”
Not every decision that Savarese has made this season has panned out, but he has shown a willingness to learn from the low moments. After the Timbers snapped a 15-game unbeaten streak by losing three matches in the span of eight days in August, Savarese, who hadn’t rotated his lineup over the stretch of games, took responsibility for the defeats.
And after Portland went 3-6-2 over an 11-game stretch in August and September, Savarese brought his club together for a lengthy team meeting and asked his players what they thought needed to change.
It was clear to the players that he valued their input, and they left the meeting with renewed confidence. Portland went on to post back-to-back wins against Real Salt Lake in October before beating FC Dallas on the road in the knockout round of the playoffs and ousting the Sounders in the Western Conference semifinals.
“We had a good meeting where he was very open in talking about the team,” Timbers captain Diego Valeri said. “He showed us that everybody is in a place where his voice is heard. He gave us the confidence to talk. We shared a lot of things, thoughts and tactics, points about what is better for the team. I’ve never had a coach do that. It was very positive.”
THE PLAYOFF RUN
Four days after ousting Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals, the Timbers returned to their training facility in Beaverton. As fog hung over the field, the group intently ran through their drills, turning their focus toward Sporting Kansas City and the first leg of the Western Conference Championship series on Nov. 25.
Despite the pressurized stakes of the postseason, there was a lightness to the mood at training. Coming off the win against Seattle, the group exuded confidence.
“Any time a new manager comes in, it’s difficult,” Ridgewell said. “Players are used to an old manager, players are used to a certain system. But I don’t think you can come in and take this club this far and not have done a good job. I think everyone is bought in.”
On the field, Savarese shouted out directions to the group and made adjustments in key moments before jumping in alongside his players to fill out numbers in an end of training scrimmage. The Timbers coach had already accomplished so much just by virtue of leading his club to the Western Conference Championship series in his first year at the helm.
And yet, his work was far from done.
(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.